In light of Arsenal’s fantastic 2-0 victory away to Liverpool during the weekend, it would appear bizarre that both Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski managed to come out of the game overshadowed by one of their teammates. But Sunday’s victory at Anfield heralded the rebirth of one Abou Diaby and the Frenchman’s virtuoso display, gave a tantalizing sample of what Arsene Wenger’s team may have to look forward to this term.
Such was the level of his performance the other day, Diaby fever has already seemed to hit a level of relative overkill, with observers from every corner of the Premier League heaping some pretty heavy praise on the 26-year-old. And let’s not forget, Diaby is indeed, 26. He’s not just cropped up overnight.
To most Arsenal fans, the antics of Diaby last weekend won’t have come as any surprise. Where as many neutrals have always been quick to write the Frenchman off, Gunners supporters have always known exactly what he’s been capable of. The problem is, he simply hasn’t had enough chances to exhibit his skills in a red shirt.
Diaby’s talents as a footballer, as he demonstrated during the weekend, are perhaps fairly unique in today’s game. As the English game moves towards a more tactically refined set-up, players – especially midfielders – seem to be geared to beholding a more specialist set of skills. The defensive enforcer, the deep-lying playmaker and the separate attacking units all play their part in Premier League midfields in 2012. But what about the box-to-box midfielder?
Quite whether Diaby represents something of a dying breed is an argument for another day, but his range of abilities as a midfielder are nothing short of eclectic. Diaby has the physicality and temperament to sit as a defensive midfielder but his technical ability and craft on the ball allows him to be just as adept as an attacking outlet, He has that rare combination of physical power and technical brilliance that makes him such an asset for Arsene Wenger in the centre of the park.
His close control and dribbling at speed brings more than a gentle reminder of a certain Yaya Toure at Manchester City but perhaps even more prominently, of Arsenal legend Patrick Vieira. Such is their physical resemblance on the ball, you could wonder the French have stored vials of Vieira’s DNA for some sinister cloning project at Clairefontaine.
But for the man who has coached both, the resemblance with Vieira is nothing more than a trick of the eye. In 2009, Wenger said of his midfielder:
“I believe Vieira was more of a passer of the ball. Diaby is more of a dribbler, more offensive and makes more penetrating runs. Vieira was more of a constructor. They have a similar elegance and type of play but are not completely comparable.”
The problem for Diaby, however, has never been impressing the manager or winning over the Emirates support. The issue has been a string of injury issues and an inability to sustainably keep fit. The last two seasons in particular, have been a living nightmare for the Frenchman.
It feels remarkable to note that Diaby is now participating in his seventh full season for the club. On one hand, his 115 league appearances (166 in all competitions at the time of writing) suggest that he’s not been quite the peripheral figure that many make him out to be. Indeed, his real stand out season in the 2009-10 term saw Diaby score six goals and four assists in 29 league games- following on from his 24 top flight appearances the season before.
But looking past those two terms and the statistics don’t make great reading for the Parisian-born star. Excluding those two terms, Diaby has failed to rank up more than 16 appearances in a Premier League season. A catalogue of muscular issues, most notably to his calf and hamstring, restricted Diaby to a meager five run outs in all competitions last season and since he came to the club in January 2006, he’s only started for Arsenal in the league 85 times.
You can’t help but feel sympathetic to Diaby’s plight, especially considering some of the injuries he’s had to deal with. He’s been plagued with ankle issues ever since the now forgotten Sunderland defender Dan Smith, fractured and dislocated his right ankle in the May of 2006. Three operations during his career are the legacy of that wild lunge and Diaby has certainly been through the mill in looking to stay regularly match-fit for the Gunners.
And to his credit, Arsene Wenger has stood right by his midfielder throughout his injury blues and has always been quick to support Diaby when criticism has come. But after floating in and out of the time and so many false starts, he’s going to have to start paying that trust back. The only way he can do so is by staying match fit; Wenger’s patience cannot last forever.
From what we’ve seen so far, too, Diaby looks to finally be putting the past behind him and pushing on for the season ahead. He’s grown in both prominence and influence in the first of Arsenal’s three Premier League games and his display against Liverpool is the amalgamation of a summer of hard work and desire to get fit for the new season. He’s looked to develop a sense of maturity within this developing Arsenal side, knowing when to sit and when to go from the centre of midfield and if he keeps it up, then Diaby fever could be lasting well past the season’s opening.
Abou Diaby is still only 26 and make no mistake about it, he has his best years of football still to offer Arsenal. But he has to make this term count. No one has ever doubted his ability and it’s time to forget the past and keep looking forward. If Wenger can keep him fit, than the 2012-13 season could be a memorable one for both player and club.
How do you feel about the Diaby fever that’s currently sweeping the Premier League? Are we going too far in our praise for the midfielder or do you believe he can be a real asset for the Gunners this term? Let me know what you think on Twitter: follow @samuel_antrobus and bat me your views.